Monday, 15 April 2019


Dartford  0  Chippenham Town  1

National League South

A few years ago, I used to get sent to Dartford a fair bit.

It wasn’t a punishment or anything like that, it was merely because we had our Training Centre on the back of an industrial estate, and from time to time I had to go down to carry out some work for them.

It proved quite handy from a football perspective, as from my base at the Dartford Bridge Hilton I was able to get to exciting places like Colchester United and Gillingham, but it never fell when the mighty Darts were at home at Princes Park.

With some time to kill on one mission, I did have a spin over to the relatively new home of Dartford Football Club, and remembered the ‘wooden’ feel to the eco-stadium, but to be fair, oiks like me were never going to be allowed a free run of the place on a non-match day, so I had to be content at peering through the gaps in the walls.

I’m a bit too young to be able to claim to have visited the old ground on Watling Street, the ill-fated venue that ended up being used by both the Darts, and Maidstone United, when they became a Football League club. My only memory of it, other than seeing old photos in Tony Williams Non-League Grounds books, was the commentary on BBC Radio Derby as Burton Albion won 2-0 in 1987 to reach the Final of the FA Trophy.

Make no mistake about it Dartford are, and indeed have always been, a serious non-league football club.

A Southern League side since the War, they won the title in 1973-74, and then again in 1980-81, which in turn saw them promoted to the relatively young Alliance Premier League. This only lasted for one season, but within two further seasons they were back again as champions, this time surviving in the top flight twice as long as before.

They Nineties proved to be a pivotal and ultimately critical period for the club. The ground share with Maidstone commenced in 1988, and with it came the short spell in the Football League for the Stones. Of course, it went inevitably wrong, the club went bankrupt, and the debt the club had built to pay for ground improvements was passed on to the Darts.

The debt was just too vast for Dartford, they sold Watling Street in 1992 to pay off creditors, and just four games into the 1992-93 season they withdrew from the league.

The club reformed, starting in the Kent League, initially sharing at Cray Wanderers, and then Erith & Belvedere. They won the league in 1996 and that bought about a welcome return to the Southern League.

A fire at Erith saw them move in with Purfleet at Ship Lane, and as we moved into the Noughties the clubs new base became Stonebridge Road, the home of Gravesend & Northfleet. Finally though, work commenced on building a new stadium back in Dartford, and in November 2006, now an Isthmian League club, they played their opening game in front of over 4,000 spectators.

As often happens, the new ground bought about an upturn in fortunes, and two promotions later, they took up a place in the Conference South at the start of the 2010-11 season. Two years later and they were in the top flight, for the first time in nearly thirty years. They survived for three seasons before being relegated back to what is now known as the National League South, where they remain to this day.

The FA Cup has only seen a couple of post war victories against Football League sides. Those being against Aldershot and Exeter City, while the in the FA Trophy, as well as the Burton semi-final defeat, they’ve also lost to Macclesfield Town and Grimsby Town at the same stage, although in 1974 they did reach the Final at Wembley, only to lose to Morecambe.

So, there we have the history, and I guess it’s really a tale of a clubs sudden demise, but then one of hard work and dedication to keep going, rebuild, persevere to find a new home, and take the club back to a better level than previously.

Princes Park has been on the radar since before Christmas, what with the 92 (now 91) completed, it was time to have a crack at the National League. I’d planned it well in advance, courtesy of a cheap tickety-split deal, only this time I’d managed to get the fast Virgin train to Euston at dirt cheap prices.

The capital was reached by 10am, and after a very short tube journey to Charing Cross, it was onto the regular service to Dartford that took around 45 minutes. A journey that goes past Millwall’s New Den, before heading out into Kent via Blackheath and Eltham, and finally through Welling and Bexleyheath.

Once in Dartford it was raining, so it was a quick sprint over the footbridge, through the shopping centre and into the planned destination of the local Wetherspoons. I like a good Wetherspoons, and this was a happy place in my World, Carling was just £2.65 a snifter, and compared to most prices inside the M25, this is probably as good as it gets.

The walk to Princes Park takes about twenty minutes, involving a stroll down a bus lanr to the South of the town, and then over the lights and up by the side of the David Lloyd Centre. Having seen the club publicising that they were opening up at 12.30pm so punters could go into the bar to watch the Spurs v Huddersfield game, I decided to time my arrival for around 1.30pm to take advantage.

The first thing that strikes you about the environmentally friendly stadium is the fact that the exterior is made almost entirely of wood. From the back of the four stands, through to the fa├žade of the impressive club buildings that adjoin the main stand.

Once in through the turnstiles behind the West goal, round to the right is the main stand where the seats run along the front, with the walkway that circumnavigates the entire stadium running to the rear, while the clubhouse sits behind. The remaining three sides are terraced, but it’s worth pointing out a couple of the more quirky features.

Opposite the main stand, at the back of the terracing is a wooden sculpture of a giant man, while the stand roofs are effectively living structures (grass) that provide a natural air filtration system. They also have solar panels, and a water recycling system. It may have cost a reported £7 million to build, but Dartford claim to have one of the most ecologically sound stadiums ever built.

Dartford are in play-off contention, while visitors Chippenham were comfortably mid-table. In front of a crowd of just over 1,000, Dartford suffered an early blow when legendary striker Elliot Bradbrooke, who announced he is to retire at the end of the season, left the field injured, he may well not play again this season, which is such a sad way to go out if it is the case.

The first half saw Dartford have plenty of the ball, but Chippenham were well organised and resolute. Chances were at a premium, and the game followed a similar pattern in the second period, however Adriel George pounced in the 78th minute for the visitors to make it 1-0, somewhat against the run of play.

Dartford threw everything at it in the closing stages but simply could not break through. It hadn’t been their day, and consequently dropped out of the play-off places as other results went against them.

It hadn’t been the greatest spectacle on the pitch, but they often aren’t at this stage of the season with so much at stake, that said, they were a super friendly and hospitable club, and on that basis alone, I would love to see them succeed in the play-off lottery.

The journey back was as straightforward as it was going down, and as always, it finished in the Royal George at Euston, which tends to be a meeting point for supporters of so many clubs heading back to the Midlands and the North West after a game in London.

We’ve closed the Training Centre in Dartford now, which is a shame as it was a handy base for the football. So when the trips to Dartford based VCD Athletic and Phoenix Sports fall onto the radar next season, I might have to start checking the train timetables again………

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Dam Park & The Drouthy Neebors

Whitletts Victoria  0  Rossvale Juniors  3

Scottish Juniors Western Region - Championship

I’m still trying to get my head around the Scottish Juniors set up, to be fair though, I think I’ve come a long way in the past twelve months, at least now I don’t have to scratch my head as to why the travelling fraternity seemed to get so excited at what I perceived to be kids football!

I’ve concluded that the Western Region, which is kind of Glasgow and Ayrshire, is the best when it comes to the standard of football and the grounds. The Eastern Region might have had a counter argument but since the bulk of them have buggered off to the Senior set up, it’s lost any debate it might have once had.

So, day two of the Scottish venture and I had some choices, I could have gone to the big game between Clydebank and Auchinleck Talbot, but I went to Maryhill earlier in the season. I could have gone to Renfrew against league leaders Hurlford United, but it was a bit of a swine by public transport (ie 45 mins on a bus!), and it’s a plastic pitch that could come in handy one day.

Whitletts Victoria, once I’d found out exactly where that was, against Rossvale Juniors, in the second tier, was the choice I plumped for, with numerous factors behind it. Firstly, it would give me a chance to take the train down to Ayr (in the same time it would take to get to Renfrew), a place I’ve never visited, and secondly it was only a ten minute walk from the railway station.

Finally, it was an 8pm kick off so it gave me plenty of time to take in the journey and sample some local hostelries.

A pleasant journey it was too, travelling out via Paisley, through Johnstone, down to Kilwinning and then on to the coast through Troon, Irvine, Prestwick, before finally arriving in Ayr. Some beautiful scenery could be witnessed, while the homes of Troon Juniors, Irvine Victoria, Ayr United and of course the Royal & Ancient Golf Club in Troon, all sat adjacent to the train line.

Once in Ayr, I headed for the ‘Drouthy Neebors’ bar which sits opposite the station. Clearly a foreigner, I was made most welcome and enjoyed a couple of pints of the finest Tennants before thinking about heading to the ground.

Whitletts is an area of Ayr that sits on the North East side of town, quite close to the racecourse. The ground is called Dam Park, and it’s effectively an athletics stadium that’s linked to the adjacent University. The stadium isn’t in Whitletts, it’s pretty central to the town, just over the river and to the right, it’s a fairly short walk to be fair.

I left my arrival until a few minutes before kick off, and having paid my £6 admission fee, I took the time to have a look around the place. The main stand is a large brutalist concrete structure with plastic seats attached to the steps. Underneath are the dressing rooms, and a tea bar / bar area that was well populated.

In front of the stand was some steps of terracing, but other than that, it was your typical athletics stadium. Because of the height of the stand though, the views were good, and this counter acted the fact that it was a good distance to the pitch, over the running track.

Whitletts sat in mid-table, whereas the visitors from Glasgow are fighting for third spot and promotion, with both Benburb and Rutherglen Glencairn having promotion in the bag and now battling neck and neck for the title.

Rossvale took the lead in the 35th minute through Chris Duff who steered home a cross from the left hand side. Despite being the better side, it took some time before the points were sealed though, an 83rd minute effort from Matt Niven made the game safe when he finished from close range after a header had been parried.

Five minutes before the final whistle, Marc McKenzie made it 3-0 when the goalkeeper and the defence suffered a complete lack of communication, putting the Rossvale player clean through on goal, with no one to beat!

So, three points in the bag, and the Rossvale supporters, who made up a large chunk of the attendance which I would estimate at around 80, travelled North, knowing they sat in the promotion places, with a big game to come at the weekend against Rutherglen.

The train back to Glasgow, was quiet, a light snooze was taken, until a rabble of teenagers boarded at Johnstone to destroy the tranquillity.

One more trip this football season beckons in May, a whole host of games are options, but to be fair, the Scottish Juniors has yet to disappoint, and that’s probably why those of us South of Hadrians Wall seem to flock in droves to watch it.

Friday, 12 April 2019


Greenock Morton  1  Alloa Athletic  2 

Scottish Football League - Championship

Belper Town had just played North Ferriby United at home in the Northern Counties East League, it would have been April 1997, and the game had ended in a 1-1 draw.

Excitement was high though, the promotion bid was still on, and, no sooner had the game finished, myself and my mate Tim were being picked up by my future brother-in-law, Martin, and being driven to Scotland to have a few days away, crashing at his parents mini-mansion in Largs.

The journey up was largely fuelled by alcopops, but then the serious stuff started. Once at Tebay Services it was into the toilets to get changed, because we were having a little stop off on the way up, to go night clubbing in Carlisle!

Yes, that’s right, nightclubbing in Carlisle. The first and probably the last time, the less said, the better. Anyway, we left Carlisle and pretty soon two of us were in the land of nod, until, the car came to a juddering halt and I was woken by Martin…

“I’ve bought you to see something…” he whispered

Still drunk and half asleep, all I could see was a wall, I thought we were at a supermarket.

“Tesco’s? You’ve woken me up to tell me we’re at a Tesco’s?”

“No you dick, look again….”

Turns out just above the wall was the sign that gave it away, we were at Ibrox, the home of Rangers, he’d bought us to see the stadium, albeit at 3am. Great, we’d seen it, now can we go again?

By 5am we’d arrived in Largs and were in bed, it had been a long day, and we had more to follow.

The following day we went into Glasgow, courtesy of Martin’s wonderful parents, Jimmy and Grace. But on the way, with them knowing how much I liked my football, we went via Greenock and had a look at Cappielow Park, the home of Greenock Morton. I liked what I saw, and as always happens, Martin said that next time we went up, we’d have to do it when they’d got a game on, and we could go and watch it.

Typically then, what actually happens is nothing, we never did go back, but I could always remember the dockyard cranes, and of course the floodlights on the old stand roofs.

When those more travelled than me, especially when it comes to Scotland, talk about iconic football stadiums, or ‘porn’ as we like to term it, it’s very rare that you meet anyone who doesn’t put Cappielow Park in their top three favourite grounds. Untouched by modernism, it remains an old school classic, with memories of the Sixties and Seventies oozing from the terraces under the Cowshed.

So, when the gaffer turned round and asked if I would be prepared to have a longer spell than usual North of the border, the initial reaction was to check the fixtures, and guess what? On the Tuesday night, I had a choice of not just one top shelf stadium in the shape of Morton, but two, because the equally admired Ayr United were at home.

I chose Greenock Morton simply because it would be something of a fulfilment, plus, I’d got a Juniors game pencilled in for the following evening in Ayr itself, so I wanted to vary the journeys and locations up a little bit.

Cappielow Park is reached very easily from Glasgow Central, just jump on one of the regular trains to Gourock, which takes you out through Paisley and Port Glasgow, before passing the ground just prior to alighting at Cartsdyke. From the station the walk is five minutes, and before I knew it I’d splashed out twenty quid for a terrace ticket and was on my way to the critically acclaimed Norseman pub at the corner of the stadium.

A couple of swift ones later (£2.50 a pint), and it was time to enter the theatre. Cappielow does not disappoint, all entrances are behind the goal, and this takes you onto an uncovered terrace that is for the homes support. Moving round in a clockwise direction is a seated stand, with GMFC picked out in yellow seats. The old floodlights that attach to the roof of the stand are still in place.

Behind the opposite goal, known as the ‘Wee Dublin End’ that is an old terrace, which is bigger than the opposite end, but now full of bench seats. Behind this sits the iconic crane that adorns many of the pictures you see of the ground. Opposite the main stand is a covered terrace, the Cowshed, albeit at the very front are a couple of areas of seating. This is where the vociferous Morton support congregate, and as the game progressed it got a pretty lively in the ‘Cooshed’.

Cappielow Park is mesmeric, especially at this time of year as twilight falls over it, it looks to have barely changed in forty years, it was how it had been eulogised about, and more.

A crowd of just shy of 1,500, the second lowest of the season, had congregated to see if Morton could ease themselves away from relegation danger against fellow strugglers Alloa Athletic, the only part time team in the Scottish Championship.

The first half was pretty grim viewing, but in the second period it was the hosts who took the lead from a very debatable penalty. Greg Kite was the man who found the back of the net, but within three minutes we had parity when Andy Graham equalised for the men from Clackmannanshire.

Morton pressed, but seemed bereft of ideas as to how to penetrate a well organised back line, and when hesitancy at the back allowed Jack Hamilton to net an 80th minute winner for Alloa, it didn’t go down very well on the Cowshed.

What started out as chants of ‘Time to go, Time to go…’ aimed at manager Jonatan Johansson, turned into a more expletive ‘Gae tae f**k, Gae tae f**k, which for the uninitiated, is a derogatory Scottish term for, err, ‘Time to go’………..

So, boos and jeers greeted the final whistle, relegation to the First Division remains a possibility, but at the minute Partick Thistle and Falkirk Athletic would be favourites to go down, two equally big names heading into part time oblivion.

The train from Cartsdyke left at 10pm, and within half an hour we were back in the centre of Glasgow.

Martin was right, I did finally get to see a game at Cappielow, albeit over twenty years after it was initially suggested.

The wait was worth it, and not a Cumbrian night club in sight!

Wednesday, 10 April 2019


Leatherhead 1 Tonbridge Angels  0

Isthmian League – Premier Division

It was a series of chance meetings at Church Warsop, Hutton Cranswick and Westella & Willerby with a chap called Dave Garrow, where it all began.

You see, it would have been 2008 and with the Central Midlands League having expanded with four new teams, it was by some bizarre twist of fate that we’d selected the same games to attend. After a third unplanned meet on Humberside, Dave and I joked that we might well end up finishing the four newbies together at Bulwell Town in a couple of weeks time.

Meet we did, this time pre-arranged as he’d taken my phone number, turns out it was purely because he needed a lift from Hucknall Station, not because he appreciated my wit and intelligence and I might be a fine acquaintance moving forward, no, it was pure selfish reasons!

I picked him up, we went to the game, chatted more than usual, and then I dropped him off, was that going to be it? No, he phoned me again, and then I phoned him, ten years later after numerous catch up’s at games and probably weekly conversations, he attended my wedding to Mrs H. Dave had become a good pal, and he was also a fan of Leatherhead FC. He was also notoriously cantankerous!

I’d not really paid Leatherhead much attention previously, but my weekly updates from Dave kept me well abreast of the goings on at Fetcham Grove, I even followed them on Twitter and watched for the results. I was becoming a distant interested observer, but not quite a fan!

I never got to a game at Leatherhead with Dave, he tended to only go midweek, and then he moved to the Midlands, but a bizarre twist in the Summer put a new slant on matters. You see, with Dave’s move, he did his clearing out exercise of his Addlestone flat, and one of his objectives was to sell his programme collection, I toyed with buying it myself, but while I was pondering making an offer he sold it to a chap just down the road from me in Nottingham.

Dave put me in touch with the buyer (he probably had a sell on clause knowing Dave), a chap called Derek Jarvis, we met and did a deal for a chunk of the collection, all parties seemed happy with the outcome, but little did I know, Derek had taken Dave’s Leatherhead items and decided to try and expand it.

It seems Derek used to watch the Tanners in the Sixties when he lived in Surrey, and since that day in August, he’s gone on to trade with a couple of large scale Tanners fans to build what is now probably, arguably, the second biggest collection of Leatherhead programmes in existence.

Derek is now like Dave, someone who I converse with on a regular basis, and I made him a promise that we’d go and watch a game at Fetcham Grove this season. That day would be in April when they took on Tonbridge Angels.

I’ve stayed close to events on the field this season, and after a sluggish start, they are now battling to achieve the Play-Offs to the National League South, largely on the back of some stunning away form, but, what a history this club has, predominantly in cup competitions.

They first shot to prominence in the 1974-75 season when they had a stunning run in the FA Cup. With the ‘Leatherhead Lip’ Chris Kelly the talismanic striker, they beat Colchester United at Fetcham Grove in the Second Round, before travelling to Peter Taylor’s Brighton in the Third Round.

A stunning 1-0 win set up a tie with Leicester City at Filbert Street, and despite being 2-0 up, they were unlucky to lose 3-2. All this, and they weren’t even a top tier Isthmian League side, indeed it wasn’t until three years later that they achieved promotion!

First Round appearances continued, a season later and after beating Cambridge United at home, they went on to lose to Tooting & Mitcham in the Second Round. In 1976-77 Northampton Town succumbed at Fetcham Grove before defeat at Wimbledon, while in the following two seasons both Swansea City and Colchester United needed replays to see off the Tanners.

The FA Cup adventures petered off but in 1977-78 they had a remarkable run in the FA Trophy, and after beating Spennymoor United over two legs they had reached Wembley where they would play the mighty Altrincham. The Northern Premier League outfit won 3-1, but in a four year spell, Leatherhead had become one of the most famous, if not the most famous name, in non-league football.

Weirdly though, the club have not won a league since 1964! They’ve moved up and down the leagues, but the bulk of their time has been spent in the lower divisions of the Isthmian League. The current spell in the top flight has been ongoing for five years now, and barring an isolated season in 2011-12, the last time they were at this level was back in 1983, quite staggering really.

So, with the day upon us, it was a 10am start from Degsy’s crib, and what should have been a 12.30 arrival in Tannerville, ended up being 1.15pm due to the M25 being an arse. Upon arrival we were met by Vice President Pete Bonney who Derek had been in touch with, and in turn we then found ourselves in the boardroom courtesy of Director Richard Bligh and Secretary Jeremy Smith. A hugely friendly and warm welcome was afforded to us, Leatherhead are run by a fantastic bunch of dedicated individuals, and even the mention of Dave Garrow’s name didn’t seem to put them off!

Fetcham Grove is old school classic, and to be fair probably hasn’t changed a huge amount since the days of Chris Kelly. The main stand is made up of a seating section, behind which sits the clubhouse and dressing rooms, while to each side of the seated area are sections of covered standing.

Behind both goals are further sections of cover, to the North end is a deeper structure set back from the pitch on the top of a section of terracing, while at the opposite end is a shallower piece of more modern cover that sits tightly behind the goal. The side opposite the main stand is hard standing with no cover.

A healthy crowd of 505 had turned up to watch a Tanners side, who sit just outside of the play-offs, take on an Angels team who, with their large and vocal following, sat in third place.

The first half was a tight and largely uneventful affair, but the second half was more open as the game became more stretched. The decisive goal came in the 72nd minute when the impressive Dan Gallagher netted with a low drive from the edge of the box. He celebrated with the home fans who by now had started to out sing the visitors, but not before having a minor trip on the netting behind the goal!

The final whistle was warmly welcomed, the Tanners play-off dreams remain very much alive, with crunch games coming up, it’s likely to go down to the wire.

And that was it, a steady journey home via Casa Jarvis, but we’ve got Mr Garrow to thank for all of this, not quite the ‘Leatherhead Lip’, that moniker has already been taken, but ‘Leatherhead Bottom Lip’, now knowing Dave as we do and his legendary tantrums, it would be a highly appropriate nickname.

Cheers Dave, and, Up The Tanners!

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Hidden Gem

Oughtibridge War Memorial  2 Wombwell Main  6

Sheffield & Hallamshire County Senior League – Premier Division

If anywhere could be accurately described as a hidden gem, then it would be the wonderfully named Oughtibridge War Memorial Sports Club.

I first encountered the place in January 2011, it was a cold Saturday afternoon, and after managing to skip out of work early and make a couple of phone calls to see if the game was on, I made my way across Sheffield and watched them play against Dinnington Town Reserves.

I was mightily impressed by the place, a superb setting, and some covered pitch side accommodation, which to be fair, is the exception rather than the norm when it comes to the Sheffield County Senior League.

Every now and then, I drive through Oughtibridge and look down on the sports ground, recalling the day of my visit, and wondering when the next opportunity would present itself for another jaunt?

With ‘silly season’ now upon us and a plethora of 6pm kick offs to go at, it did indeed present itself perfectly on a Wednesday evening, on the back of a glorious Spring like day in the City of Sheffield.
Oughtibridge is accessed via the A6102 which runs from the back of Hillsborough, all the way up to Stocksbridge. With a slightly rural feel to it, the village sits in a valley, with the River Don running through the centre of it. It is a very pleasant place to visit, and clearly, a sought after place to reside.

Parked up at the ground, I made my way to the very smart Cock Inn which sits close to the weir, it had a decent selection of ales, and after careful consideration I plumped for Carling. Locals came in and out after work, and the food smelt very good, but, with something at home sat in the microwave awaiting my return, I was unable to partake….

Since I last went to the ground, it has changed somewhat in the sense that a smart clubhouse and dressing room building has been erected, and this serves both the football and the cricket. Previously some portakabins had been in use, but nowadays they look like they are used for storage.

Walking out across the field, directly in front of you is a steep bank covered with foliage and trees, while beneath it are the spectator facilities. A bit of stepped hard standing then leads to four separate, albeit small, sections of cover, mainly for standing but with the odd bench thrown in for those who like to sit. It’s quirky, it’s effective, and painted wholly in green, it’s actually in keeping with the location.

The pitch is railed own this side, and this is where the dug outs also sit, but elsewhere is just open. The views from the cover over towards the village itself are also pretty spectacular, with the newly built apartments dominating the skyline, but again, built with local stone, they are again, in keeping.

The game itself was a cracker, mid-table Wombwell Main produced an excellent display of finishing, and after holding a 4-1 half time lead, they went on to win 6-2 to leave the hosts in the bottom five of the table, but not in any significant danger of the drop.

Wombwell’s goals came from Ryan Hallsworth, Kyle Wyatt with a brace and a super hat-trick from Ryan Winegrove, who scored a spectacular half volley. Winegrove looks like a player who could go on to better things. Apologies to Oughtibridge, I don’t have your scorers and they aren’t on Full Time!

All in all, a great night’s entertainment, and even when the rainfall came, it didn’t put a dampener on the occasion (had we not had some cover I might have been less enthusiastic!). For anyone who hasn’t experienced a game at Oughtibridge, I would urge you to take the opportunity, and also take a look around the village, it won’t leave you disappointed.

I'll be back, sooner rather than later, besides, the Carling was to die for........!

Friday, 5 April 2019

Born Of Frustration

AFC Mansfield  3 Morpeth Town  1

Northern Premier League – Division One East

Every once in a while, in football supporting terms, the toys come out of the pram.

We can all handle our teams playing crap, having rubbish players, being largely a footballing failure, but what we can’t handle is turbulence within the ownership and all that goes with it, including the insecurity and uncertainty it breeds.

Politics and greed, we’ve seen it so many times over the years at the professional level, and then of course, led by the pioneers, AFC Wimbledon, the fans get so sick of it that they form their own clubs.

The aforementioned Dons, FC United of Manchester, Coventry United, AFC Barnsley (RIP) and of course, AFC Mansfield are all examples of clubs that have emerged out of the maelstrom of dissatisfaction over what happens off the pitch, not on it!

AFC Mansfield were formed in June 2012 by three former Directors of the Stags who were somewhat unhappy with the goings on at Field Mill, many of which had been dragging on for years, largely over the ownership of the club and the stadium (the two were in separate hands which didn’t help).

They were immediately accepted into the Central Midlands League, and won promotion from the North Division, based out of their home at the Forest Town Arena. The finished runners up to Dronfield Town, and that was enough to earn a place in the Northern Counties East League

By 2015-16 they had recorded another second placed finish, in the NCEL, and with it came a berth in the Premier Division, or Step 5 as it is also known. The movement forward continued and by the end of the 2017-18 they had gained promotion to the Northern Premier League, finishing third behind Pontefract Collieries and Pickering Town despite mustering an impressive 96 points.

So it’s been a success story on the field, but what about off of it? Well the stadium has seen improvements, which to the naked eye include new floodlights and a new stand to meet grading requirements.

Crowds wise though it’s been something of a struggle, a huge influx did not shift across from the Stags and this season they are averaging 103 through the gate, which is the second lowest in the division.

From a commercial and marketing perspective, again looking from the outside, it does look as though the club is moving in the right direction. Sponsorship, advertising and events look to be high on the clubs agenda, and at this level of football they need to be.

I first went to the Forest Town Arena, or The Clod as it is known locally, back in 2004 to watch former tenants of the ground, Forest Town, take on Teversal in a friendly game. The stadium comprises a football pitch with a cycle track around it. On one side is a steep concrete stepped bank that has been seated, the bulk uncovered, with a standing area behind it which sits in front of the Welfare.

A small Atcost type stand has been dropped in just to the side of the banking, while the dressing rooms and tea bar sit behind the goal. The Welfare is a huge place, with various rooms, but football supporters are encouraged to use the main bar area without having to sign in or such like.

It may not be the most aesthetic of venues, but it’s functional, it’s tidy and it has a very good playing surface that holds up to most weather conditions very well indeed.

I’d chosen to go and watch the game, and I’ll be honest, because I wanted to see champions elect Morpeth Town in action, and also being honest, I was expecting an away victory, but it seems I got that very wrong.

Morpeth had a hell of a lot of the ball in the first period but Bulls goalkeeper Jason White made two excellent saves, combined with some stout defending, to keep them at bay. It was the hosts who took the lead though in the 39th minute when Ellis Wall found the net, very much against the run of play.

Morpeth had the ball in the net in the 66th minute from a Joseph Walton penalty that was clear cut, this after White had continued to make some outstanding saves. But, just when you thought the visitors were on for the turnaround, Mansfield went straight up the other end for Oliver Fearon to net with a well placed header to make it 2-1.

Morpeth tried to battle back, but frustration got the better of them and as the game moved into injury time they found themselves down to ten men, and with another clear penalty awarded which Fearon duly despatched, it finished 3-1.

A fantastic result for Mansfield, a truly brave and battling performance against a side that will win the league sooner rather than later. The Bulls are safe this season, and under Mark Ward and Jon Froggatt I see no reason why they can’t push on next season.

But what about AFC Mansfield, the club formed out of anger and frustration? Well, they’ve taken on the mantle of the most senior club in the Mansfield area behind the Stags (who themselves are now in a much better place), with more traditional sides like Clipstone and Rainworth falling behind them, but it will come very much down to those running the club.

As one AFC official said to me, age is not on their side, they could do with some younger blood coming through to carry things on for the next generation. The club isn’t for disaffected Stags anymore, so that angle isn’t available, it’s now about harnessing the small but loyal band of followers who love non-league football, to help them to carry on.

But then again, isn’t every club like AFC Mansfield in the same boat as far as that’s concerned anyway?

C’est la vie, mi duck!

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Aqua Sulis

Bath City  1  Woking  1

National League South

Given that I consider myself to be pretty well travelled as far as the UK goes, it was quite odd that I’d never once set foot in the City of Bath.

Yes, I’ve been to Dumfries, Whitstable, Haverfordwest, Lowestoft, Penzance and even Ballinamallard, but the beautiful Bath Spa has always eluded me.

Not sure quite why, just one of those things I guess. But, with Steps 1 and 2 on the radar in terms of the completism exercise, it firmly jumped onto the radar earlier this season due to Bath City plying their trade in the National League South.

Of course, as soon as Mrs H got a sniff of it I was the best part of three hundred quid down as we were all going to make a weekend of it. Mrs H doesn’t do B&B’s, nor does she do Hotels without facilities that meet her standards, in fact, Mrs H doesn’t do anything with a hint of a budget about it.

But, it was a little treat for us all, even if it transpired we had to make our own car parking arrangements, for the price of your average B&B in Glasgow!

The Friday afternoon journey down wasn’t too bad, apart from a broken down lorry on the roundabout at the M42 entrance which caused several degrees of chaos and a delay of about forty minutes. The journey from the M4 into Bath was surprisingly straightforward and after having to take a slight detour to drop the family off at the hotel before parking up, we were sat in the Bath Brew House over the road with pints in hand.

With an early night secured, it was a relatively sprightly start in the morning and we were soon treading the pavements of Bath, grabbing a coffee and getting on board the first available entry to see the iconic Roman Baths. I must admit to being somewhat ignorant to the existence of such a place, but the sight, the history and the geology of the place is quite wondrous, even if the taste of warm spring water is absolutely vile!

With that done, it was a good old Spoons breakfast prior to the obligatory open top bus tour of the City, which took in sights such as the Crescent and the Circus, along with somewhat more historic venues such as Bath Rugby Club, where one of the great club sides of the Eighties and Nineties swept all before them!

With the touristy bit done and dusted, it was time to get the number 5 bus to Twerton and the football ground. The journey is not a particularly long one in terms of mileage, but Bath is a very busy place, and it takes time to meander down the Old Bristol Road before turning left under the railway line and up into the centre of the suburb itself.

A short walk from the bus stop and the up the slope brings you into the car park, and this is where the sheer size of what is a superb non-league football venue hits you. I’ll talk more about the stadium later, but what about Bath City FC, the club and the team?

A Southern League side for many seasons, winning it in 1978, they became founder members of the Alliance Premier League in 1979-90. They remained in the top flight of non-league football for nine seasons, with a best finish of fourth, before returning to the Southern League once again.

Two seasons later, in 1990 after a runners-up spot was secured, they were back in the top flight of what was then known as the Conference National. This time the spell lasted for seven years before the Southern League beckoned again, but on this occasion they had to wait until 2007 before promotion presented itself to them, courtesy of the championship.

Promotion came to the now Conference South, and within three years they were back in the Conference National, for just two seasons until relegation took them back to where they remain to this day.

They aren’t renowned cup fighters to be fair, the FA Trophy semi-final was reached recently whereby they lost to eventual winners North Ferriby United on penalties, whereas in the FA Cup notable Football League scalps include Grimsby Town, Barnet, Hereford United and Cardiff City, but in all honesty, the First Round Proper has not been reached since 2011.

But what a stadium, a proper old school non-league football ground, that if you recall, was once used by Bristol Rovers in the Football League when they were homeless for a spell.

The clubhouse sits outside the ground and backs onto the large main stand which sits on the top of the small car park. Underneath are the offices, dressing rooms and a shop, but once inside the stand the plastic seats give an excellent view of the pitch, despite the numerous supporting pillars that can obstruct. In front of the main stand is a terraced paddock, while heading round to the left behind the goal is an area of open terracing (the home end / Bath End) that starts quite narrowly and then widens as it reaches the opposite side of the ground.

Opposite the main stand is a vast covered terrace, which has a strange kind of slope as it moves towards the end of the pitch at the Bristol End of the ground. This is where the hard-core Romans support congregates. Another open terrace, significantly deeper than at the home end sits behind the opposite goal, and when a big crowd is in place, like today, it’s used for the away support and can be segregated. Moving round from this to the side is a much smaller seated stand that is again used for away support, and this sits to the right of the main stand, at a slight angle to the pitch.

As for the floodlights - pure porn!

After a quick pint and the purchase of a great value family ticket, we queued at the turnstiles and were in place less than five minutes before kick off. We got some seats despite a crowd of over 1700 being in place, and on a gloriously sunny day, it was time to watch two sides who in all probability, may well be meeting again in a months time in the play-offs!

The first half wasn’t a great spectacle, and it was the visitors who had the half time lead thanks to a goal in the eighteenth minute from Max Kretzschmar who capitalised on a goalkeeping mistake.

Bath got a deserved equaliser in a markedly better second period albeit video evidence does suggest that Andy Watkins was in an offside position when he found the back of the net.

The draw was a fair result, and it didn’t really make much of a difference to either side in the grand scheme of things, as Woking’s hopes of overtaking Torquay at the top took a further blow, while Bath simply consolidated a play-off berth.

The bus back to the City Centre was packed, with a number of Woking fans (nearly 300 were at the game) heading back to the Railway Station. Mrs H nearly got into a fight with an octogenarian as we neared our stop, it appears he did not like the tone in which she asked to be excused as we squeezed past to get off the bus…..anyway, had it come to blows I would have fancied her chances, she would have been at least three to one on for a knock out!

The evening was spent having a meal and a few drinks, before a lie in and a departure back North the following morning, a first visit to Aqua Sulis had been both memorable and enjoyable, not least the experience of the magnificent Twerton Park.

Ballinamallard it wasn’t…….